Piano Rolls

Perhaps the oldest of all the media on which Cy’s music is recorded, at least insofar as that media itself is a format for reproducing sound, is the player piano roll, the commercial use of which traces back to at least 1883.  The magic of a player piano (see, Ma, no hands!) is immediately apparent:  the keys are literally playing themselves, or, if not, it would seem that a ghost pianist must be.  In actuality, an incredibly complex design and mechanical genius implemented during the late 19th Century created a system by which strategically-perforated and continuously-rolling paper, passing over a “reading” track mechanism and triggering vacuum-driven pneumatic operation of the player piano’s keys, generates exactly-reproduced piano music.

To understand this marvelous process from inception to completion and through the actual “performance” of the roll, one can do no better than to view this video by QRS Music Technologies (hereafter “”QRS”), the present iteration of one of this media’s founding companies:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i3FTaGwfXPM.  This excellent video starts by showing an early player piano’s “playing” of a piano roll, with the paper roll’s passing over its reader track and with the keys seemingly operating themselves; and then delves into the creative design and manufacturing process.  Visually apparent to one watching the player piano operate are the printed lyrics to the song (they appear on the edge of the piano roll paper); a decided incentive to sing-alongs, a common entertainment modality when no radio or television existed.

In the present digital age, the mechanical player piano and paper piano roll have largely been supplanted by automated QRS Pianomation digitally-driven player pianos, operating on MIDI files from a compact disc and otherwise looking much the same as a normal piano does.  However, QRS still manufactures and sells the original design player piano roll that it has been offering continuously since 1900, and one of the three rolls of Cy Walter’s music that it created in the mid-Twentieth Century, Cy’s arrangement of “Tea For Two” (Word Roll 9349; 1957), remains for back-order sale in its on-line catalog.  Besides this song arrangment by Cy, QRS also issued two other Cy Walter player piano rolls: “Penthouse Serenade (When We’re Alone)” (Word Roll 9454; 1957); and “The Blue Room” (Word Roll 9462; 1957).

Bob Berkman, the former President of QRS, has advised Mark Walter that these QRS piano player roll recordings are not of Cy Walter actually playing his own arrangements.  Instead, they were made by QRS’ legendary J. Lawrence Cook, a pianist who also specialized in the art of creating the physical piano rolls, generating them from either an original composer’s arrangement or from Cook’s own transcription of the piece.  Bob Berkman lauds Cook’s talents and artistry, and describes the piano-player related machine on which Bob himself now performs (the Pianola, an early-Twentieth Century mechanical wonder by which any standard piano can be turned into a player piano), in his fascinating website, www.pianolaenterprises.com .  The three Cy Walter rolls were each released by QRS in 1957 (9439 Tea For Two – released in May; 9454 Penthouse Serenade – released in June; and 9462 The Blue Room – released in July); and they were part of what was called the “Personality Series”, in which J. Lawrence Cook created rolls “in the style of” a number of popular pianists.

The Cy Walter piano rolls here listed are those three produced by QRS.  Another piano roll company, American Piano Company or Ampico, also produced at least two piano rolls with arrangements by Cy.  These rolls included “The Birth of the Blues”, Ampico 30281B, performed by Robert Barns and arranged by Cy Walter (which is in the Walter family’s collection, awaiting a recording to be made thereof by Bob Berkman on an Ampico player piano); and “Tea For Two”, Ampico Lexington 88n (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LM89HPJEPQY), a piano player roll that the Walter family does not have.  Bob Berkman advises that the Ampico player piano system used a slightly different technology than that employed by QRS, one that permitted potentially more interpretive elements to be introduced to the piano roll itself (rather than having them be added by the human intervention of foot-pumping the piece).  However, as we lack recorded versions of either of these Ampico player piano rolls, they are not further listed below.


Cy’s Arrangement Of Tea For Two Performed By J. Lawrence Cook On QRS’ Piano Roll

Cy’s Arrangement Of The Blue Room Performed By J. Lawrence Cook On QRS’ Piano Roll

Cy’s Arrangement Of Penthouse Serenade (“When We’re Alone”) Performed By J. Lawrence Cook On QRS’ Piano Roll